Saturday, 29 March 2014

Times: Ex-presidents agree with George Abela’s stance against signing the Civil Unions Bill

‘He shouldn’t sign the Bill if it goes against his conscience’
Friday, March 28, 2014, 07:01 by Ivan Camilleri

Dr Abela greets Ugo Mifsud Bonnici.

Two former presidents stood up for George Abela over his decision not to sign the Civil Unions Bill, saying they would probably have resigned if asked to sign a law that went against their principles.

Ugo Mifsud Bonnici and Eddie Fenech Adami were asked their opinions following the revelation by Times of Malta yesterday that President Abela had signalled to Prime Minister Joseph Muscat he was not willing to sign the Bill into law on “moral grounds”.

Asked about the issue, Dr Muscat yesterday said “all is on track”, while the Opposition accused him of playing “divisive politics”.

The government has been forced to postpone the final approval of the Bill by Parliament following the position taken by Dr Abela and will wait until Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca takes over the presidency.

Contacted by this newspaper yesterday, both former presidents declared they would have adopted the same stance if the Bill conflicted with their principles.

“President Abela is right and he shouldn’t sign the Bill if he feels that it clashes with his conscience. I would have done the same in his place,” Dr Mifsud Bonnici said.

Dr Fenech Adami argued that no one, not even the President – who is bound by the Constitution to give assent to laws approved by Parliament – should be forced to go against his principles.

“In principle I wouldn’t have signed the Bill. Principles are not for sale,” he said.

However, they agreed there were few avenues left if a President was faced with a Bill he disagreed with.

“In my time I had made it publicly clear that if a Bill that goes against my conscience is presented to me for assent, I would not sign it and would resign,” said Dr Mifsud Bonnici.
Principles ‘are not for sale’

“The public’s will as expressed through Parliament has to be respected and in that case one would have to resign. Still, no one can force a President to go against his conscience.”

Dr Fenech Adami with President Abela.

Dr Fenech Adami’s view was: “If a President does not agree to give his assent to a Bill, there are only two options. Either resign or face an impeachment motion.”

Although this issue is politically embarrassing for the government, the Prime Minister, while not denying the President’s objection, refuted the suggestion of a constitutional impasse.

“What I discuss with the President is private and I am not going to tell you,” he told this newspaper.

He said it was “normal” for a Bill to wait for a third reading for more than five weeks.

The Nationalist Party said that it was not surprised by the President’s stance.

“In the first year of this legislature, the Prime Minister has consistently ignored everyone who departs even slightly from his own position,” a PN spokesman said.

Insisting Dr Muscat has lost the opportunity for consensus on civil unions, the spokesman said the PN “has consistently appealed for consensus and even proposed amendments that would strike consensus across the broad spectrum of society”.

“These appeals went unheeded and the amendments were all rejected by the Prime Minister.”

Although the President’s role in the Constitution is mainly ceremonial, all Bills approved by Parliament have to be given the President’s assent to become law.

It does not offer an alternative, saying that when a Bill is presented to the President, “he shall without delay signify his assent”.

According to the Constitution, the President can be removed from office by a motion approved by a simple majority in Parliament.

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